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A Sonoma Syrah Sum Greater Than Its Parts

The 2009 Carlisle Sonoma County is a classic-rated county wine blending grapes from some of Sonoma's top Syrah vineyards
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 23, 2011 10:41am ET

What happens when you put together a handful of California's best Syrah vineyards with a crack winemaking team?

How about the 2009 Carlisle Sonoma County Syrah, featured in the May 18 Wine Spectator Insider. It's a good story and then some.

For one, it earned a 97-point rating and it is an amazingly complex, deep and layered wine that drank well for three days after it was opened and tasted in one of my blind tastings. For another, it sells (or sold) for $25. Those kinds of numbers—rating and price—don't usually go hand in hand. But it's nice when they do because it proves it can be done.

Winemaker Mike Officer has found a wonderful groove of late, with a string of great wines in recent vintages. He seems to improve with each year, both with Zinfandel and Syrah. The 2007 vintage, a grand one by most measures, was particularly strong for Carlisle, with some high-water marks, while 2008, a more challenging year, also showed the strength of his vineyards and winemaking.

The 2009 Sonoma Syrah is a wine whose sum is greater than its parts, and it's a good lesson both for winemakers and consumers. So-called appellation, or county blends, can be every bit as good or even better than single-vineyard wines. It's easier to discover that in blind tastings than if you're staring at an expensive wine from a particular site.

"As I've told our customers in the past, I don't see our county wines as inferior to our vineyard designates," Officer wrote this week when asked about the Sonoma cuvée. "They're just different. Jay [Maddox, the winemaker] and I have always enjoyed coming up with them as they challenge us to come up with a blend qualitatively equal to our vineyard designates. Why then do we price the county wines for so much less? Mainly because there's a perception in the marketplace that a county wine in a portfolio of vineyard designates should be cheaper. I also like having something at this price point [even if we lose our shirt on it] as it encourages people unfamiliar with our wines to give Carlisle a try."

"Given the vineyards that went into this wine," Officer went on to say, "I'm not surprised you enjoyed it."

The wine is a blend of Syrahs from James Berry Vineyard (owned and farmed by Saxum in Paso Robles and about 23 percent of the blend), Papa's Block, one of Carlisle's best vineyards, Steiner Vineyard (a soon to be new vineyard designate on Sonoma Mountain) and Rossi Ranch. "Even the Rossi Ranch Syrah could have stood on it's own but with so many vineyard designates in our portfolio, I decided it was best to not introduce another. And what was I thinking putting James Berry and Papa's Block in a $25 bottle???? [Saxum's] Justin [Smith] delivered us magnificent fruit in 2009. Yet, unfortunately, I felt we did not do the fruit justice. The wine was good, even very good, but I wasn't confident it was worthy of the vineyard's lofty reputation. It was a similar situation for Papa's Block. Additionally, given the demand for Papa's Block and how little we had of it in 2009 (a lot of the crop was lost to botrytis, we only picked unaffected clusters), I felt the easiest thing was to use it in our Sonoma County."

I've found that winemakers who make up to a dozen different wines, as Officer and Maddox do at Carlisle, like to tinker with blends. Often times it's more fun to test different cuvées. And many times a winemaker can make a better wine using different sources and blends than he can from a single site.

As it is, too many wines carry vineyard designations and loftier prices than should. A single site can be both great and limiting and quality can vary each year. If you only use what you have from a single site that will be the expression. But that doesn't mean it's going to be better. And as the Carlisle 2009 demonstrates, the wines they make surprise even winemakers. Sometimes the wines they think will be the greatest aren't. And then there are these kinds of surprises. Too bad there aren't more.

Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  May 23, 2011 11:03am ET

Just recently enjoyed the '07 Papera Ranch Zin from Carlisle - still holding the '07 Papa's Block Syrah. Wish I could find a bottle of the '09 Sonoma Syrah, but can't find one anywhere. Any ideas?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 23, 2011 11:45am ET
Couldn't agree more, Jim, as you know from our tasting together for more than 25 years. Blends often can make more complete wines than single sites, which theoretically compensate for that with distinctive character. The best sites, of course, deliver both. But we all know how rare that is.
Adam Bremer
nashville, TN —  May 23, 2011 1:05pm ET
I was lucky enough to see the rating in the newsletter and do a quick search and found 6 bottles from Vintage Wines north of san fran. They only would allow 6 per customer at that time and were out quickly... Doing that never seems to work but luckily for me it did last week.. can't wait till the bottles come later in the week. BTW, thanks JL for quadrupuling the price of the Carlisle in 1 day in case I want to auction a couple :) Harvey, love your stuff on this site :)
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  May 23, 2011 3:07pm ET
i started an exhaustive search once i saw the insider rating, but couldn't secure anything for less than $75.
Jeb Singleton
Fairfax, VA —  May 23, 2011 4:20pm ET
That's just nuts paying $75 for this considering what the mailing list price was. Glad I bought 6 of these at the time.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  May 23, 2011 5:02pm ET
I'm sure it has something to do with allowable percentages, but the last time I checked, Paso Robles was a long way from Sonoma County. How is it, then, that fruit from the James Berry Vineyard can be included in a "Sonoma County" appellation bottling? Not that I care - good juice is good juice. I'm just curious.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 23, 2011 5:09pm ET
Whit, your geography is spot on...for a county designation (as opposed to an AVA), 75 percent of the grapes must come from the said county.

Ryan Schmied
Miami, FL. USA —  May 23, 2011 6:02pm ET
Early prediction, 2009 Carlise Sonoma Syrah will wine wine of the year...
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  May 23, 2011 7:46pm ET
I believe the $75 that Jeb speaks of is for the Petite Syrah. I don't see the Syrah for less than $95.
Richard Lee
Napa —  May 23, 2011 9:12pm ET
Jim, I would imagine that you are kick'n back right now laughing your behind off! Just think, all of the people who take ONE man's word as gold in reviewing wine. I love reading about all the time these guys are wasting searching for this wine. Thanks again for the entertainment!
Adam Wallstein
Spokane —  May 23, 2011 9:51pm ET
Let's be real though. Jim is obviously hugely trusted, but, people who would pay 90 bucks for it are chasing this wine as an invest-and-flip item at this point, NOT because they are convinced it will be that delicious.
Ann Vaughan
Wimington, Delaware —  May 23, 2011 9:53pm ET
Ryan - you may be right about wine of the year but at 391 cases and a few thousand people still on the waiting list, it is not easily available. That could go against it. If you are a zin or syrah fan though, the wait is worth it. Great wines that are reasonably priced. I'm glad they are getting some good press for their efforts. They are super nice people.

Jeff and Ann Vaughan
Jeff Phillips
SF, CA —  May 24, 2011 2:35am ET
I am so happy to have secured a spot on Carlisle's mailing list and that I bought all three bottles that I was allotted of this wine.

I received them in mid-March and by mid April the itch to try one was something that I could no longer help but to scratch. I figured I have three and I only paid $19.20/btl (Mike is kind enough to offer a generous discount to those who place their orders early) so if it tastes young I still have two more. It knocked my socks off and I was amazed and what a tremendous value I had received.

My personal tasting note was "The wine is a deep garnet color but more magenta around the rim. The beautiful aromas literally leap out of the glass and are of blackberries and violets as well as some gamey/beefy notes. Really stunning aromas. The blackberries & violets follow through onto the palate with tongue-coating/teeth staining tannins kicking in on the mid-palate and stretching into the finish. Just a beautiful wine..... I have 2 more bottles and will try my hardest not to open another one for another 9-12 months. But, I know it is a battle I may lose."

When I went back and read Mike's own tasting notes on his website I was pleased to see how similar they were. Guess it shows our palates are similar which must be why I love his wine so much.

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